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What is the default phrase you use when ending an email?

“Regards”?

“Sincerely”?

“Cheers”?

“Thx”?

“Snet fmor ym iPnohe, lulz”? (if you’re shopping around for a new sign-off, there’s a fun – and long – list here)

Whatever closing you may be using at the moment, it turns out that the way you end an email could be more influential than you think. And not just in terms of how likely the recipient is to write back.

Depending on the context, the way you close your emails could affect the recipient’s sense of worth and value, and even influence how they respond to other people in their inbox.

Yeah, I know…that does seem like a bit of a reach. But stay with me for a moment, because the research is actually pretty interesting.

An intriguing email hack

A couple weeks ago, I stumbled across an article where the email productivity company Boomerang describes finding that emails with a closing that expressed gratitude (like “thanks”) had an average response rate of 62%, while emails without a gratitude-based closing (like “best”) had an average response rate of just 47.5%.

It seemed like a pretty handy email hack, but this wasn’t a true research study, so it made me wonder…is this really a thing? And if so, why does an expression of gratitude increase the likelihood of a response?

It turns out that others had wondered the same thing, and in a series of studies, a pair of researchers (Grant & Gino, 2010) tested the effect of neutral and grateful emails to see if grateful emails might lead to more “pro-social” behavior. As in, would expressing gratitude increase the likelihood of a receiving a helpful response? And if so, why?

Help with a cover letter?

Sixty-nine university students volunteers were told that they’d be providing a student with feedback on their job application cover letter as part of a career center study.

They received the cover letter in an email, and were asked to email their comments directly to the student – “Eric Sorenson” – within 24 hrs.

A day after sending Eric their feedback, participants received a reply from Eric’s email account.

Half of the participants (the control group) received a neutral email which acknowledged receiving their feedback, and asked for help with a second cover letter.

Specifically, this:

“Dear [name], I just wanted to let you know that I received your feedback on my cover letter. I was wondering if you could help with a second cover letter I prepared and give me feedback on it. The cover letter is attached. Can you send me some comments in the next 3 days?”

The other half of participants (gratitude group) on the other hand, received an email which included an expression of gratitude in addition to the request for additional help.

Their email said:

“Dear [name], I just wanted to let you know that I received your feedback on my cover letter. Thank you so much! I am really grateful. I was wondering if you could help with a second cover letter I prepared and give me feedback on it. The cover letter is attached. Can you send me some comments in the next 3 days?”

So what happened?

Gratitude makes a big difference

As you can probably guess, those who received the grateful emails were significantly more likely to help with the second cover letter. 66% vs. 32%!

The researchers could have stopped there, but they did a second study that extended their findings in ways that might be even more intriguing.

A second study

The next study started out the same way as the previous one, with 57 university students being asked to provide “Eric” with comments on his cover letter.

Once again, half of the participants (control group) received a neutral email from Eric, confirming that he received their feedback. Like:

“Dear [name], I just wanted to let you know that I received your feedback on my cover letter.”

Meanwhile, the other half of participants (gratitude group) received a more grateful email, like:

“Dear [name], I just wanted to let you know that I received your feedback on my cover letter. Thank you so much! I am really grateful.”

However, instead of Eric asking for help on a second cover letter, a day later, participants received an email from a totally different made-up student with the name “Steven Rogoff” – who wrote: 

“Hi [name], I understand that you participated in a Career Center study to help students improve their job application cover letters. I was wondering if you could give me feedback on a cover letter I prepared. The cover letter is attached. Would you be willing to help me by sending me some comments in the next two days?”

Just to clarify, at this point, the participants don’t know that they are still participating in a study. As far as they know, Steven is just some rando student reaching out for help.

So how did they respond?

Gratitude wins again!

Well, once again, participants who received the grateful email from Eric were about twice as likely to help this other totally random student Steven, as those in the control condition who received the neutral email, with 55% in the gratitude group responding with feedback, versus just 25% of those who received the neutral response.

So what are the implications and takeaways of this?

I’ll get to that in a moment, but the bigger question might be, why did these expressions of gratitude lead to a willingness to help others – even strangers who were not at all connected to the person who originally expressed gratitude?

Two theories

There are two theories about this.

One possibility is that expressions of gratitude increase our self-efficacy (i.e. our sense of competence), and when we feel more confident in our ability to be helpful, we’re more likely to do so.

The other possibility is that gratitude contributes to our sense of social worth, or the feeling that we are valued and can make a positive difference in others’ lives. And that when we feel our efforts to help are appreciated, we are more likely to extend ourselves in this way. If, on the other hand, we are not sure if our efforts are valued, or have concerns about whether people will accept or reject our help, we’re less likely to try.

So which is it?

Which theory wins?

Researchers had participants complete both a self-efficacy and social worth assessment.

And though both the participants’ self-efficacy and social worth scores increased after receiving the grateful emails in the two studies, only one of these factors was found to be a statistically significant link between gratitude and pro-social behavior.

Social worth.

In other words, at least in this series of studies, the likelihood of our helping is dependent not so much on whether we feel confident in our ability to help, but in how confident we are that our help will be valued, needed, and truly appreciated by others.

So what are the main takeaways from all of this?

Takeaways

Well, it’s easy to get lost in the daily grind of our lives and hyper-focused on the various challenges we’re facing. To worry about making rent, memorizing the last movement of a concerto for our next lesson, and keeping the kids from spending all day on YouTube in the midst of everything being cancelled.

Yet there are many people in our lives – from our kids’ piano teachers, composition teachers, volleyball coaches, and jiu jitsu instructors, to our ophthalmologists, dog groomers, and the many colleagues who agree to listen to us play and give us feedback, who go above and beyond to make each day a little better.

So I love the idea that taking a moment to reflect on why we’re grateful for their presence and expressing this to them, could not only make them feel more valued, needed, and appreciated, but that this could also contribute to a domino effect of behaviors that could positively impact the lives of others. How, in other words, a simple thank you today, could make the world a slightly better place for a stranger tomorrow. 🙂


References

Grant, A. M., & Gino, F. (2010). A little thanks goes a long way: Explaining why gratitude expressions motivate prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(6), 946–955. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0017935

About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.

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